So first the challenges. The culture needs to hear the Word of God today, but they are being put off by both the messenger of the Word and by a mishearing of the message. The culture does not trust the church, and it does not trust our message.
There is one main reason that the culture does not trust the church these days – the clergy scandals of the last several decades. We constantly hear the message that it is not safe to trust your children or your wives or your sisters to be alone with Protestant pastors or Catholic priests. Of course, we might think that the “Me too” movement would have taken some of the wind out of the sails of that criticism, or at least chastened a little bit of secular self righteousness. But that hasn’t happened yet. The common attitude seems to be: “Maybe Hollywood and Washington, D.C. are bad, but the church is worse.”
In terms of the traditional office of Word and sacrament, the criticism is legitimate that too many of the pastors of the church have failed in properly exercising pastoral care. This is not however a legitimate criticism of ordained ministry itself. Rather, it means that those who are called to be clergy need to be reminded of what it means to be a shepherd of the flock. So first, as the reading from Isaiah reminds us, clergy are not some kind of different species of human beings. Ordained clergy are sinners, just like those to whom they minister. Noel and Greg, the readings from Isaiah remind us that the clergy are people of unclean lips and you dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips. But One greater than a seraphim has touched our lips, and he has said, “Your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” It is because Christ has forgiven you, that you, as a priest will be able to proclaim that Christ forgives others. But in order to do this, you yourself need to acknowledge your own sins, and you need to accept Christ’s forgiveness.
Caring for the flock of which you are the shepherd means to imitate Jesus Christ by becoming a servant of his people in the same way that Jesus himself became a servant for us. In 2 Corinthians 4, the apostle Paul writes: “For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” (vs. 5-7) What is a jar of clay? The King James translation uses the expression “earthen vessels.” The whole purpose of a vessel is to be a container; the vessel does not serve as an end in itself, but to carry something else. An earthen vessel or a jar of clay is also not a golden chalice; it is something weak, even something that can be broken.
Like John the Baptist in the famous Grunewald painting, the priest points away from him or herself to the crucified Christ. It is not the priest who saves, but Jesus. The priest points to Christ, he or she does not dominate over or abuse the flock, but serves the flock. Jesus said: “[W]hoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matt. 20:26-28) As a priest, you are called to follow the Good Shepherd, and, like him, to lay down your life for the sheep. You are called to love your people, and to be their servant.
The second challenge of the culture is that the Gospel is not heard as good news. The church has failed to preach the message in such a way that it has been heard for what it is.
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